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Report: Syrian journalist dies of wounds

(AP) Report: Syrian journalist dies of wounds
By BARBARA SURK
BEIRUT
A Syrian journalist for a pro-government television station died of wounds sustained in a shooting attack in the suburbs of Damascus, state media said Saturday, as rebels fighting to topple President Bashar Assad pressed ahead with an offensive on the capital.

The SANA state news agency said that Suheil al-Ali, who worked for the private, pro-regime Dunya TV station, died Friday, four days after he was shot while returning home from work. The agency blamed a "terrorist," the term the government uses for those trying to topple Assad.

Al-Ali is the latest of several journalists working for pro-government media in Syria to have been killed. A cameraman for Syrian state TV and a reporter for the state newspaper Tishrin were among others slain in recent months in killings the Assad regime has blamed on rebels.

Fighting has raged for weeks in the neighborhoods and towns around Damascus that have been opposition strongholds since the Syrian uprising began in March 2011. The revolt started with peaceful protests but morphed into a civil war that has killed more than 60,000 people, according to a recent United Nations recent estimate.

Rebels are trying to push through the government's heavy defenses in Damascus, the seat of Assad's power. The regime has responded with a withering assault including barrages by artillery and warplanes.

Rebels and government troops clashed Saturday in suburbs south of Damascus, including Harasta and Daraya, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. Fighting in Daraya alone left 10 dead, including six rebels, according to the Observatory, which relies on reports by activists on the ground.

The army sent new reinforcements in to Daraya, part of an offensive aimed at dislodging rebels from the district, located just a few kilometers (miles) from a strategic military air base west of the capital, the Observatory said.

Regaining control of Daraya would provide a boost to the regime's defense of Damascus.

Government troops had arrested several residents in raids in the suburb of Qatana, the Observatory said. Fighting was also heavy in the central province of Hama, Idlib, and in the southern part of the country, in Daraa, the birthplace of the Syrian uprising. Besides the deaths in Daraya, 35 people were killed around the country, the group said.

Fighting was also reported on the road to the Damascus International Airport, the Observatory said. The airport has not been functioning since last month when clashes erupted on the airport road, and international airlines have not yet resumed flights to the Syrian capital. Airport officials have said the facility is open, but have not said which flights are operating.

Rebels frequently target government officials for assassination, and have killed several regime figures. The most dramatic attack took place in July when they detonated explosives inside a crisis meeting in Damascus, killing four senior officials including Assad's brother-in-law and the defense minister.

Large bombings have been a trademark of Islamic radicals fighting alongside the Syrian rebels, raising concerns about the extremists' role in the civil war.

Last month, a suicide bomber wounded Interior Minister Mohammed al-Shaar in an attack on his ministry building. After the Dec. 12 attack, al-Shaar was secretly sent to neighboring Lebanon for treatment of a back injury, but was rushed out of a Beirut hospital and back home two weeks later for fear of being arrested by Lebanese authorities.

On Saturday, SANA denied reports that al-Shaar had died, saying the minister is "in good health and recovering."

In Tehran, Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad discussed the conflict and ways to end it with Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, Iranian State TV said. Iran is one of Syria's strongest allies. Tehran has backed the Assad regime in its brutal crackdown on dissent that turned into a civil war after some opposition supporters took up arms to fight the military.

The conflict has increasingly taken sectarian overtones, with predominantly Sunni Muslim rebels fighting the ruling regime that is dominated by Alawites, an offshoot group of Shiite Islam.

In Riyadh, Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal said the Assad regime has lost legitimacy "at home and abroad."

Speaking at a press conference after a meeting with his Egyptian counterpart, Mohammed Kamel Amr, al-Faisal said called for an immediate end to the bloodshed in Syria and a peaceful political transition.

Saudi Arabia and Egypt have both called on Assad to step down, and Riyadh has also been an outspoken supporter of the rebels.

Also on Saturday, an Arab League official said the group's foreign ministers will hold an emergency meeting in the coming days in Cairo to discuss ways to assist Syrian refugees in Lebanon. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information.

More than half a million Syrian fled violence and sought shelter in neighboring countries, including some 130,000 to Lebanon. The country's government has requested $180 million from international donors to help its efforts with refugees.

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Associated Press Writers Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, Aya Batrawy in Cairo, Abdullah Shihri in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and Ali Akbar Dareini in Tehran, Iran, contributed to this report.

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